South Charlotte

He's treating some of the toughest scars

The wide, reddish scars criss-cross Charlie Petrizzo's head like a roadmap. They'll always be reminders of a harrowing, humbling journey to a deeper healing for himself and others.

His story may be too incredible for Hollywood: hit by a car at age 4, his head "cracked like an egg," sending him into a coma; electrocuted at 16, suffering third-degree burns on 70 percent of his body; working to help the murderer of a 12-year-old girl - a torture case that drew national headlines - train dogs in the victim's name from inside an Indiana women's prison, even arranging the start of a grueling reconciliation between the killer and the girl's mother.

The former parishioner at St. Matthew Catholic Church in the Ballantyne area returned recently for a showing of the autobiographical documentary "Charlie's Scars," which won a Jury Award at the Asheville Film Festival in November and was scheduled to be shown at the Charlotte Film Festival on March 13. Donations from the screening helped support Special Religious Development Program in Chicago, the parent organization for the church's program to benefit special-needs adults and children.

Petrizzo, 48, has his own cause: Project 2 Heal, which trains dogs to help children with learning and developmental challenges. His ministry is the latest chapter of a life that's devoted to "bringing good from bad" for himself and others.

Petrizzo doesn't remember anything about the accident at 4 that left him paralyzed on the left side of his body for a long time - and little about being electrocuted when he lost control of an aluminum ladder that touched some power lines in his hometown of Staten Island, N.Y., on July 16, 1979.

"My eyeballs felt like they were pulled out of my head, and I was out," said Petrizzo, a St. Matthew parishioner from 2001 to 2007 who still returns regularly from his home in Waxhaw. "At 36,000 volts, you don't remember much. It hits you, and you're gone."

He survived only because of the quick thinking of Buddy Fair, who was eating across the street at McDonald's and saw the incident. Fair ran over and turned a hose on the teen, who had "turned an orange-red," Fair recalled in the documentary.

Petrizzo's excruciating recovery included physical and mental challenges that would be staggering for anyone, let alone a teenager: disfiguration, multiple skin-graft surgeries (he later contracted liver disease from a tainted blood transfusion), chronic pain after a large part of his left torso was removed, depression and self-esteem issues. But his winding, jagged path to healing actually had begun years earlier.

When he was 11, Petrizzo got a Labrador mix that gave him a profound sense of calm and joy. He knew then that dogs and healing would somehow be a theme throughout his life. The final confirmation came nearly 30 years later in 2002 and 2003, after he had moved to the Charlotte area and advanced to an executive position at Wachovia.

His mother, Carolyn, a source of unending support during his childhood tragedies, had long been ill with leukemia; she died in 2005. "But a couple (other) things were going on there," Petrizzo said. "My father-in-law took ill; he had cancer and died like about a month after the diagnosis.

"I was getting some push-back from some subordinates about a project I wanted to do to raise money for the Make-A-Wish Foundation because our competition was doing that. ... To me, that was a sign that maybe that was the wrong place, because we had made so much money and were so blessed, and yet I was getting push-back when I asked to do something to give to others.

"I was never home to see my kids. I missed the first six, seven years of their lives. It wasn't worth it; I don't care how much money you're making."

He left the bank in 2003 and founded Project 2 Heal, overseeing dogs on several acres at home.

"We've probably donated about 50 dogs over the five years or so," Petrizzo said before the screening at St. Matthew.

Perhaps his biggest test of healing came when he decided to donate dogs to the Indiana Canine Assistance Network for training inside the prison. While visiting the prison, he learned that one of the inmates working with the dogs was Melinda Loveless - one of four teenagers found guilty in the 1992 burning death of 12-year-old Shanda Sharer in Madison, Ind.

After much soul-searching, he decided to interview Loveless. A former burn victim, he wanted - needed - to see whether she showed remorse.

"I wanted to go for the throat," he said. "It's very hard for me, because I always was the guy who was, 'Somebody killed somebody? I'll pull the lever. Put 'em in the chair. I'll pull the lever.' "

He grimaced, his voice lowering to a whisper. "Melinda was sexually abused by her father for years. That's not condoning what she did. She's got to serve her time.

"But we can let her rot in there, or we can make her productive so that when she comes out she's not costing us money but is contributing to the economy."

His decision to let Loveless continue training the dogs in Shanda's name drew criticism, which he understands.

He also was sensitive to the reaction of Jacque Vaught, Shanda's mother - particularly because his electrocution prevented him from fathering children.

"That's been the single most devastating thing in my life because that affects my wife, Sandy," he said.

After Petrizzo showed Vaught the prison interview and she saw an obviously contrite Loveless, a path to forgiveness opened. Petrizzo was able to convince her that having Loveless help disadvantaged children is something Shanda would want.

He said Vaught has been happier and in less emotional pain since. Some of her scars are healing, too.